As I edge closer to the end of my storytelling residency around resilience & remembrance at Virginia Tech, I find myself becoming increasingly nostalgic. I have no idea how long it’ll be before I return to this place. If you follow me on social media, you’ve probably noticed that every time I come back to Blacksburg, I talk about my nearly daily trips to Bollo’s.
Lately, when I sit here on a re-purposed church bench, back tucked up against the brick wall, facing the glass door that’s long been cracked by an errant rock from the road or an attempted break-in (I don’t know the story), I have this image of multiple versions of myself walking through that door all at the same time and running into each other.
Before I get there, though, one thing that probably doesn’t come through when I wax poetic about my time in Blacksburg is how incredibly difficult the first year was. My choice to move from Tennessee to Blacksburg was not an easy one. It came on the heels of heartbreak for me, letting go of a long-held dream that a man I loved would come around to a plan I’d hoarded for the both of us that we should be together. I’d finally let go and picked up to start afresh.
Yet, I moved to this college town with only a job working in a bar and a couple of friends. My family didn’t really understand my decision, and my father in particular said some very harsh and manipulative words about the matter. We had words several times about it over the first few years actually, even as I moved into what I felt was a mission-driven career in a nonprofit, he called it “just a desk job”.
As I found myself budding in my sense of self and community – a “placeness” I never understood as we chased my father’s job around the region and back as I was growing up – I was also languishing in other ways. There were no real romantic prospects in a town where I grew older and older and the rest of the population stayed 18-22. My weight eventually ballooned up 45 pounds heavier as my roommates and I ate our way through Blacksburg and enjoyed our laundry nights with Must See TV, pizza, and wine.
So there’s one version of me, walking through the door of Bollo’s. Around 26, having been in Blacksburg about three years. So excited to finally be in a full-time job. Having some great girlfriends. Taking a break from her job nearby to come down for a mid-afternoon, sugar-filled cup. Probably her third or fourth of the day.
Too much coffee and other budding adult issues actually landed me in the hospital, and that was the beginning of my journey toward a healthier life, as I started to examine how I was eating and how I was dealing with my relationships.
Walking in the door just behind that version is the 32-year-old me. She’s both devastated and more alive than she’s ever have been before. It’s 2007, late summer, four months after the shootings. She’s come back from her internship in Minneapolis and has been hired to lead artistic response and community dialogue work here in the community she has loved for so long. It will be the hardest work she will ever do.
She sits in Bollo’s for hours because it is her mobile office. People come and go as she meets with them, and she watches them come and go on their own business. She feels incredibly lonely as most of her friends from school have graduated and moved on. She’s lost some weight due to the side effects of a medication. Now that she’s finished with grad school, she’s starting to wonder what’s next. She yearns for partnership. She’s back in Blacksburg for an undetermined period of time, feels guilty that she wants to leave after what’s just happened, compelled to stay and help, conflicted, and…It’s. So. Hard. Everyone is grieving. How could this have happened? What is our responsibility to “clean this up”? What if we mess up, hurt people worse by inviting them to do art and talk, but they wind up unraveling instead? Ultimately, she puts together an event for the one-year anniversary. It goes well enough.
She feels ready to move on to a bigger place where the chances of finding partnership seem greater. And so she does.
And then, there’s the today me, 41, walking through the door on a Wednesday morning, weight finally back down to what it was the day I left for college. I’m getting ready to do what again feels like the hardest work of my life as I help to put together a storytelling show for the ten-year passage of the tragedy.
My life has changed in some incredible ways, both good and bad over the last year. Best of all, of course, is my choice to step fully into my calling to become a storyteller and story coach. Additionally, my father is no longer in my life to question my choices and peck away at my confidence.
All three versions of myself stand at the Bollo’s counter and ask for a mug and a real spoon. The various versions of a barista generally accommodate either because, after waiting on me day after day (sometimes multiple times in a day), they know my issue about environmental waste, or they agree that those little wooden stir sticks are for the birds, or they simply don’t care in that unflappable way that only a barista is capable of displaying.
I’m struck by how all three versions of myself carry the same contradictions, that same feeling of vitality and deep fear. Sometimes I question how deeply each of us embraced being alive, especially when I think about how many weekends my earlier incarnations could spend on a couch. We all had the capacity to feel very much alone and awkward in a crowd, while striving to entertain people with our jokes and stories. Just like the Wizard: Don’t pay attention to what’s going on behind the curtain.
At least at this point in my life, I’m blessed with not having to wonder about what comes next. I mean, I may not know all the parts. I definitely still yearn for partnership and often ponder if/when that might come along. Yet I’m a much happier person overall as I settle into myself. I feel stronger, more steady. I will keep working on helping people tell their stories. I will keep working on how I tell my own. And then, of course, there’s the very next thing.
I order the best oat fudge bar in the world.